Swiss Alpine Marathon
Saturday 28th July 2007
Relaxation was the theme of the holiday. Just some time to chill and do what we want to do; try to go for a couple of runs, but no worries if we don't. Some cable car trips, some walking in the mountains, some local wines and all the traditional grub - just try not to get too fat.
All started well, with a gentle stroll into Klosters Platz on the first, beautifully sunny, evening, a detour to show Carmel my grandparents' old house just off Monbielerstrasse, and a nice meal and a Calanda beer in a restaurant terrace with a view of the Silvretta glacier at the top of the valley. Wonderful. We were too late to pick up basic rations - some milk for a nice cuppa - from the Co-op, the only supermarket in town (we'll leave aside the rickety barn advertising 24-hour milk - we're children of the Tesco age after all), but noticed a bus-shelter-sized poster just outside. Something called the 'Swiss Alpine Marathon' was to be held in Davos, the larger, more glamorous town on the far side of the Parsenn ski area. Cool. There were half-marathon, 28K and ultra options too and the half would start near Klosters, in sight of our ever-so-fabulous balcony. Even cooler. On the 28th of July. That's pretty soon. Actually, no, that's on Saturday, while we're actually here. Glances were exchanged. A point of no return was reached. There would be an expo in Davos for the next couple of days - maybe they'd take entries, but probably not. I had a plan for an excursion over there tomorrow anyway - can't hurt to ask.
We like to travel in style, so Thursday's trip to the Davos expo consisted of a cable car to the Gotschnagrat (2285m) a testing hike across the tinkly-bell cow-infested pastures and lunar slopes of the dormant ski area to a leisurely lunch at the Weissfluhjoch (2652m), and a precipitous funicular railway ride down to the town centre. First stop was the tourist information office, where glossy race brochures were pored over, immodest prices digested and course profiles gasped at. Nearly seven hundred metres of climbing in the K21 option, it says here... 'perfect for beginners'? Excuse me? Beginner lunatics maybe; Grunty Fen it ain't. Anyway, the option of being the one to bottle out was unpalatable, so we headed off to the Kongresszentrum, to where politicians and captains of industry annually flock first-class to sup champers on the pretext of saving the earth, and got signed up. Easy as that, no entry deadlines missed, no race limits reached, everyone welcome. Hip, hip, hoo-bloody-ray. Picking the race T-shirt at registration with your race number is the first test of resolve - the delicious possibility of simply pretending to have raced has to be balanced against the creeping terror of one's clubmates checking the official results. No, it would never work.
As you may have realised, the Swiss Alpine Marathon isn't your typical race. First and foremost it's an ultra; the other options include the principal nasty marathon (the K42), a 'cultural' marathon on flatter terrain (the C42; the unspoken implication is C for 'cowards') and a K28, but the 78-kilometre K78 (oh, I see...!) event is the pinnacle. After a frankly cruel loop out of town, the K78 doubles back along the ever-narrower, ever-deeper valley down to the relative lowlands of Filisur, dropping five hundred metres and taking in a terrifying crossing of the gorge at Wiesen. A left turn, a few deep breaths, and the roads start to rise. Once you're past the unbelievably picture-postcard town of Bergün, where the K78 joins the K42 route beneath the snow-tipped Piz Ela, it gets serious. The roads turn to tracks, the tracks to trails and the terrain goes up and up. Twin high-points at the Keschhütte hikers' lodge and the Scaletta Pass, both above 2600m, have to be conquered, presumably by crawling, before the relative respite of the Dischma valley sweeps the survivors along the last 18km to Davos.
Fortunately, we had entered the race for 'beginners'.
The eve of the race day was spent on every form of mechanised alpine transport imaginable. Rest would be rather important, we reasoned. Still, a day trip to St Moritz and a supreme gnocchi with shaved parmesan, chilli and sun-dried tomatoes and a glass of frothing Calanda atop Piz Nair, with the most spectacular panorama you could ever, ever imagine, compared favourably with the usual pre-race routine of veggie spag bol and CSI on the telly. And the altitude was bound to do wonders for the red blood cell count.
For the first time, the K21 would start on the Sunniberg bridge, not far down the valley from Klosters Dorf, to the far side of Davos from the other races. It would have its own character, clinging to the fringes of the Gotschna massif as it climbed up towards the pass between Klosters and Davos, and would rain down prestige on the smaller town. The day was warm, but less so than the previous three, and a breeze moved the sparse clouds briskly from peak to peak. Pretty good. A train had been laid on from the bahnhof at Klosters Platz to the race start at Büel, and once we'd dropped off our bags and Carmel had undergone the vital international ritual of waiting out the infinite queue for the Ladies', we squeezed on board the 12:55 Marathon Express.
There is no station at Büel. But we reasoned that anyone who had a problem jumping off a train onto a loose stone slope high above a torrential glacial river had no place participating in something with the word 'Alpine' in the name. We hopped off and warmed up. This being Europe, everything was chip-timed, so no problem with congestion. Anyway, we planned to take it very steady, as a training run, and times were hardly going to be significant. Looking around, I began to feel that the Swiss-flag-bedecked bandanna I'd searched high and low for would probably not, after all, make me blend in with the locals all that well. A helicopter buzzed riskily around the bridge superstructure, and we waved happily at the TV camera. The start was signalled by a failed attempt to shoot down the chopper with a deafening firework. We looked at the mountain, swallowed hard and jogged across the bridge.
The start, Sunniberg bridge
The Sunniberg bridge carries the new Klosters by-pass into a 4.2-kilometre-long tunnel through the mountain, but we were pitched straight into the (on average) steepest section of the entire race, up and over the tunnel mouth and away from Davos but upwards, ever upwards. A section with compacted dirt paths winding through dense forest. My hideous wheezing at two kilometres was a pretty good sign that we'd deviated a tad from the pre-race plan and were going to pay. We gratefully joined the many who were taking the opportunity to walk the steepest bits. Not for the last time. Another aspect of 'the plan' was that we would run together, if only because if one of us died en route, the other could arrange a respectful burial before pressing on. It was becoming obvious that I would be bury-ee rather than bury-er, and my anxiety grew as Carmel bounded lightly away from boulder to boulder before resignedly waiting for the old fatso. The path doubled back in places, and spotting a line of runners through the trees almost directly overhead is never good for morale. Finally, we hit the section summit at Grossrüti (which, if it exists as a settlement at all, has a population in single figures, most of them livestock), and settled into some beautiful, gently undulating, forest tracks.
By this time, I'd given up on the chances of my fancy new GPS keeping a reliable distance, what with the mountains and the trees, but the altitude function was a lifeline, telling me we'd gained a couple of hundred precious metres. Cavadürli was the next point on the profile map I'd worked so hard to memorise, and with it came the first refreshment stop. Many lingered there for an indecently long time, and I didn't wish to dissent. A cereal bar was greedily swallowed, washed down by iced tea (can you really need food after 5K?). Cavadürli itself is another tiny hamlet in a mountain clearing, but has the distinction of a railway station, a wooden chalet beside the Rhätische Bahn which clings to mountainsides around the Graubünden canton in the most unlikely manner over viaducts and through tunnels, even spiralling sometimes to gain height. No-one ever gets on or off at Cavadürli, but I'm somehow glad it exists.
Sadly, the next section was up, and more up, and lasted for many, many hours. The absurd single-file zig-zag up a beautiful but steep alpine meadow was a highlight, because it allowed another walk. Joy. Clumps of spectators (how in the name of St Paula had they got there?) tried to bolster us with 'hopp, hopp, hopp!', 'super-r-r!', and general clanging of cowbells, but it was all A Bit Hard. Look, we're trying to hopp, OK? All the same, it was difficult not to get a boost on the steep climb where the track passed under the Bahn. The race people had organised the Marathon Express to stop there, and dozens of supporters hung out of the carriages cheering on their sweaty loved ones. Bless.
By the 8K mark, we'd climbed nearly four hundred metres, and had made it almost as high as the finish in Davos, and were more than two-thirds of the way to the highest point, upwardly speaking. But I knew there was a pig of a trick coming, and, as the track lurched downwards into the forest and my legs revelled in some delicious plummeting, my heart sank. I worked hard for those metres, goddammit. Still, we were over the worst, and a relatively gentle upward section (up means walk a lot, you see?) brought us into Laret.
From the point of view of a shattered, bewildered runner coming out of a dark mountain forest, Laret can easily be mistaken for civilisation, and we were delighted to see it. It brought houses, asphalt roads, a bright blue fishing lake and, above all, the second drinks stop. We'd got back to eye-level with Davos, and there was just a 150-metre hummock in between. Things were good, and we were going to make it. We hurried through the refreshments this time, leaving barely enough time for a picnic of Alpinbrötli (something like a currant bun) and Rivi Marathon (imagine if Lucozade Sport tasted like Pimms rather than an industrial preservative), and entirely missing the broth and bananas. I seem to recall running across a railway line to get to the goodies but have no concept of having looked out for trains. All in all, if it weren't for the feeling in my legs that walking the steep bits wasn't enough and some gentle bits (and possibly some of the flat bits) needed a more leisurely attack, life would have been sweet in Laret.
Endurance was becoming a problem. We hadn't exactly racked up the summer miles, and London was forever ago; hell, I'd struggled to stay the distance at the St Ives 10K last week. As the road gently rose out of Laret, my legs began to ask whether it was all really worthwhile. We crossed a rickety, rocking scaffold-cum-bridge over the main Klosters-Davos road and headed back into the woods towards the race's high point at Wolfgang. The alpine conifers were sparser here, and temperate species crept in where the forest canopy parted and sunlight poked through. It all seemed very familiar... yup, we were doing the Swiss version of the Wibbly Wobbly Log Jog. Still, we were soon slogging up nasty inclines to gain the final hundred metres or so. Carmel dashed to the top of a rise to pose for a photo (minus mountaineer's flag, sadly); a couple of fellow competitors stopped and stood clear whilst I gasped for air and pretended to wrestle with the camera to get the perfect shot. Polite or just knackered? You decide.
The affluent satellite village of Wolfgang appeared round a bend in the road, giving us our first look down the valley towards Davos. We'd hit the highest heights of 1631m, and the Marathon Express had pulled over at the station to mark the event. Much waving and abundant 'hopp, hopp, hopp!'. I was in trouble on the flat bits by now, so the easy inclines down through the open woodlands towards the blue waters of the Davoser See were a divine gift. We could smell the finish. Forest folk began to appear more frequently from their hidden chalets (or maybe from their magical toadstool homes), and the beautiful sweep around the lake finished at a slightly odd beach resort, complete with trucked-in sand, and speckled with oiled sun-worshippers and casual-cool beach-volleyballers who displayed not the slightest interest in us. Our first townies.
One last hop over the unguarded and level-crossing-less railway and it was a steady, painful climb to the final drinks tent, at Stilli, with a little over five K to go. A slightly disappointing picnic of cereal bars, iced tea and water was snatched; it clearly needed to be digested with care, so a brief walk was agreed. I recall a nice tail-wind and a downhill slope at that point, but one should never risk indigestion. We ploughed on, in marathon shuffle mode - we Cambridge people don't do mountains, but we know how to grind it out on flat tarmac. A loop towards Duchlisage took us off the direct route to join the K78 and K42 course as it emerged from the wilds of the Dischmatal. We might have felt tired, but it didn't take a gait analyst to pick out the ultras from the beginners. They'd gone four times further since setting out at dawn, and each and every one was listing heavily in one direction or another. A far-away look in their eyes spoke wordlessly of unspeakable things. Almost immediately, we ducked off road past a Union flag-toting support crew, from whom I begged a cheer (none came - either I'd just gasped 'mmnhhh mggnhhh', or they'd miraculously taken me to be Swiss), and were pitched up over a final short, sharp pig of a climb and down into Davos.
The last couple of kilometres involved a prolonged cycle of eager-to-finish surging and can't-keep-it-up ow-it-hurts slowing down. The sports centre was away to our right, and we over-shot to set up a long-straight run-in, past a series of bars and tents dispensing cold beers and suspicious sausages, and packed with people (the bars and tents, I mean, not the sausages). Through the stadium gates and onto the running track, banners and flags flying, people cheering; one great half-lap of honour and, with a final 'ping' from the timing mat it was over. We'd crossed together, just as we'd started the whole thing about a hundred years earlier. No funeral needed. We flopped on the verdant astroturf infield and drank Erdinger Alkoholfrei (yes, afraid so) in the alpine sunshine. We were officially beginners.
Now, where can we get a bottle of milk at this hour?